This conversation between Homa Taj and Agnès Varda was recorded in person at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, on November 10, 2013.
The marvelously talented French filmmaker, artist, producer and screenwriter Agnès Varda will (finally!) receive an honorary Palme d’Or at the 68th Cannes Film Festival, which start today. Varda’s predecessors who have received honorary recognition at Cannes include Woody Allen (2002), Clint Eastwood (2009) and Bernardo Bertolucci (2011.
Homa Taj – You began your studies at École du Louvre …
Agnès Varda – Yes, École du Louvre was about history of art and I wanted to know about painting, and about history of artists. I started early but I didn’t want to become a curator. I wanted to be involved in seeing, and in understanding whether it was Cezanne’s Mont Ventoux or 14th century painting. And, there I learned to love painting. So, on my own, I would go to museums … to study art.
But, when I wanted to become a filmmaker – I did not come from the world of cinema, like some other filmmakers – I thought, I don’t know about film but I knew about painting.
I was so impressed by Picasso not only because he was a great artist but because he was changing his projects all the time. He was changing himself, you know. He was constantly discovering himself. And, at the time, when you said you loved Picasso in the ’50’s, everybody laughed about it …
So, in my first film (La Pointe Courte, 1955), there is a profile shot which is from Braque …
And, have you seen Lions Love (& Lies, 1969)?
HT – Yes, yes, I saw it last week, here in LACMA.
AV – Did you see the homage to Matisse and Magritte?
HT – Yes … distinctly.
AV – Well, this film didn’t do well at all. It was a flop. So, this My Shack of Cinema (1968–2013) is my way of reviving it. It is the only print that we have recycled. It’s 3,500 meters of film.
HT – The original?!
AV – No, it’s one of the original, vintage prints. But, as you see, it’s faded. So, by using it to make a shack, it’s like reviving something. Like what I did with the film The Gleaners & I (2000) where people are recycling, and saving what is being wasted.
So, this way, the film (Lions Love, & Lies) is no longer a flop. It’s a shack. And, I think it’s a nice experience to just to be inside the film! This is like inventing another way of speaking about or experiencing cinema. It’s not enough to show a film on the screen. So, what I did was try to see what it is like to live in a house that is a film.
And, if you look at it from afar, it looks like a nest.
And, over there, I did a big mural using images and quotes from the same film (Lions Love).
It is exciting for me to be able to re-invent film in another way than the screening it in a room, or in a cinema.
Of course, I have done a lot of films. But, for the past ten years, I have done a lot of installation work. And, for me, this is another approach to audiences.
Also, I did another installation called Les Veuves de Noirmoutier (2004). Do you know about it?
HT – Yes, I have seen some footage and images from it.
AV – Yes, so, with Noirmoutier, there is a 35-mm film (9 min 30 secs) of women on the beach, all dressed in black and moving around a large table. Then, there are 14 monitors around this film, and there are 14 chairs in front of the installation. On each of the chair, there is a set of headphones. You can only listen to one video at a time, and in each a widow speaks for about 3-4 minutes. We had this shown at the Carpenter Center (University of Harvard), about four years ago, in 2009.
Of course, each widow is very different in the way they talk and tell their stories.
So, this is what I am trying to do. To break the traditional way of looking at cinema using screening, videos, installations, etc…
HT – Yes, but you also do the reverse by referencing traditional visual arts in all your films. For example, you reference Hans Baldung Grün (c. 1484 – 1545) in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962) …
AV – Ah, you know Baldung?
HT – Yes, of course.
AV – Yes, that is what I call a mental image – and, I don’t care if a lot of people have never heard of Hans Baldung. I don’t have to show (the original) or speak about it. It was just important to show this beautiful woman in the flesh, and that skeleton speak to each other. It’s something about beauty and death.
So, sometimes, I have a post card of an image on the set. I don’t have to show it but it keeps me on the subject.
You heard me talk about Cléo de 5 à 7 ?
HT – Yes, I have been attending all the events at which you have been speaking (here, in LA)? I thought, one of these days, you will look at me and say, that woman is stalking me. She needs to be arrested [laughs].
AV – No, I am so glad to have people who are interested in my work. Can you believe, I am so old. And, Cleo was made in ’61. This is before you were born.
HT – [Laugh] Yes.
AV – This is what gives me peace in my old age. Because, some of my films are forgotten. But, then, my daughter is so nice. She helps me to do the installations and organize these events. And, to keep a nice group of people working with me.
And, then, I meet all these unemployed people who have studied cinema. Everyday, I meet people who have been learning editing, filmmaking. And, then, there is no work for them. There is just enough room for certain amount of filmmakers. So, it’s a difficult situation for the cinema. And, in France, it’s the same problem.
HT – I have so many questions to ask you.
AV – I cannot do everything [laughs]. But going back to your film about Rodin & Rainer Maria Rilke [René (The Movie)], I love that poet so much. You know Hans Olbrist did, at the Serpentine Gallery, a marathon of poetry. And, I was invited, among others, and I read, I recited Federico García Lorca’s poetry in Spanish. And, I recited Rilke’s poetry in German.
But, the subject of your film is difficult because you are dealing with different arts…
Ok, I am glad you could be here. Au revoir…
And, off went Agnès to greet her old friend, Bernardo Bertolucci.
VIDEO: WATCH of Bernardo Bertolucci with Agnès Varda in Varda’s My Shack of Cinema (1968-2013) at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by Homa Taj for MUSEUMVIEWS